Archive | October 2015

“The Improbability of Love” Book Review

Photo courtesy of: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24044141-the-improbability-of-love?from_search=true&search_version=service
Photo courtesy of: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24044141-the-improbability-of-love?from_search=true&search_version=service

Author: Hannah Rothschild

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: November 3, 2015

Type: Fiction

Rating: ♦♦ out of ♦♦♦♦♦

Synopsis:

Thirty-one year old Annie McDee is still recovering after the heartbreaking end to her long-term relationship and living in London where she has no friends and is far from the place she used to call home. With dreams of becoming a world class chef, Annie currently works as the chef for a  sinister art dealer and her father. Trying to rebound following her break-up, Annie has entered into a relationship with a most unsuitable man who she ends up buying a dusty painting from a junk shop for. When her new boyfriend fails to show up for dinner, Annie attempts to return the painting to the secondhand shop where she purchased it from, only to find the shop has burned down. What follows is an interweaving narrative about Annie, her employers, and the history of the painting. With a former Nazi playing a prominent role I the history of the painting, Annie finds herself at the center of a sinister plot to frame her for crimes she didn’t commit or even know about.

Thoughts:

I received an advanced e-galley of Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love courtesy of the Penguin’s First to Read program in exchange for an honest review.

Initially when I read the synopsis for Hannah Rothschild’s new book, The Improbability of Love, my interest was piqued and I was excited to read the book with it’s promise of mystery, murder, love and a long and unique history that revolves around a long lost painting by Watteau. Unfortunately, the story failed to live up to it’s promise for me, and it was not until about the last 100 pages of the book that I began to enjoy and be interested in the book to the point that I wanted to keep reading to see what would happen next. I fail to understand why the author felt the need to make the story 400 pages when it could’ve easily bee parsed down by removing a few things, and even character plot lines, that were not necessary to the story as a whole. The prologue was something that I feel could’ve been left out of the story as it introduced a slew of characters, many of whom were not imperative to the overall story and are only ever mentioned once again towards the end of the book.

One character who is given more page time than I think was necessary, is the exiled Russian, Vlad. The only reason I can see as to why Rothschild felt as though Vlad was needed to have such a presence in the story, was to help provide an explanation about how Vlad and Rebecca’s daughter come to meet  and what happens to them. As it is though, their relationship happens so late in the book, and Rebecca’s daughter only makes an appearance once in the book; thus, their relationship and the two of them could’ve been removed without causing damage to the overall story.

The story could’ve very easily been told with the main characters of: Annie, her alcoholic mother Evie, the young artist Jesse who falls in love with Annie and who aids her in learning about the painting’s origins and eventually in trying to prove her innocence, the art dealer Rebecca and her father Memling Winkleman, and of course the painting which the story and all of the relationships revolve around.

The parts of the book I found the most enjoyable were: when the painting discussed it’s history from his conception to all of the historical people who owned it throughout the years, when Rebecca traveled to Berlin to find out the truth about her father and why he was so obsessed with finding The Improbability of Love painting, the troubled relationship between Annie and her mother, and when Annie was framed and Jesse worked to find out the truth in order to exonerate her. It was these parts of the story which made me enjoy the narrative story and feel as though the story was going somewhere and wasn’t someone’s random ramblings.

The narrative as told from the point of view of the painting was a unique concept and made for an interesting read. I couldn’t help but view the painting as a spoiled brat and a snob who whined all the time. It was good that the painting was humbled during the course of its ownership by Annie, for she was down to earth and served as a reminder of the creator of the painting who was no one special during his time and died at a young age. This ownership, allowed for the painting to do something for its current owner it couldn’t do for it’s original, or any owners following the death of Watteau, it allowed the painting to prove that one should never give up on love and it even brought new love into Annie’s life at a time when it was greatly needed.

It is apparent that the writer has done her research about the painter Watteau, how art historians work to verify a painting’s authenticity and about the different time periods and historical individuals who may have crossed paths with the painting. Being a fan of classical art, I enjoy learning about some of the classic painters like Van Gogh, Monet, Titian, Renoir and so forth, I did find aspects of the history in the book that were intriguing; but it became long-winded and tedious as it continued to be drawn out and mentioned at every turn.

In the end I’m not sure that I would recommend this to anyone, not even to my friends who enjoy art and stories about art. I can’t help but feel that there are better books out there with plots which revolve in and around art and the art world.

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“Twain’s End” Book Review

Author: Lynn Cullen

Publisher: Gallery Books

Publication Date: October 13, 2015

Type: Historical Fiction

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I was fortunate enough to receive and advance e-galley of Lynn Cullen’s latest historical fiction work, Twain’s End, courtesy of NetGalley and Gallery Books. In Twain’s End, Cullen examines the relationship between the famous American novelist Mark Twain and his private secretary Isabel Lyon. Through the course of the book, the reader is introduced to the young secretary, who first meets the infamous Mark Twain when she is a governess for another family and accompanies the husband to a card night at Twain’s house. After years of not seeing one another, Isabel is recommended to be the ill Mrs. Clemens’s secretary which ultimately results in her becoming Samuel “Mark’s” secretary. Over the course of seven years, Isabel develops a relationship with not only Mar, at first it is one of mutual respect with not so veiled flirtation, and then following the passing of Mrs. Clemens, that blossoms into romance.

With continued back and forth between the two as to whether or not they will ever solidify their relationship and stop being the “talk of the town”, Isabel finds herself being drawn into a web of secrets with his daughter Clara, which caused me the reader to view as contributing to her downfall with the writer. Following the revelation of Clara’s secret relationship and the fact that Isabel was complicit in her affair, Mark begins to push Isabel away. Feeling that the only way for her to continue to protect the man that she loves and to allow him to save face, Isabel agrees to marry Mark’s business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. Initially Mark gives the couple his blessing, but within a month of the wedding he unleashed a 429 page rant against Isabel, saying that she was “a liar, a forger, a thief,…” to name a few. Clara, Twain’s daughter, then goes on to continue the slander against Isabel in the papers, completely eradicating all the hard work Isabel had done for the family during her seven years of service to them.

Lynn Cullen attempts to answer the question, which has plagued Twain scholars for years, “What did Isabel do to bring about this treatment? Was everything that Twain said about her in fact true, or was it the vindictive words of a man who had had his heart broken?” Lynn Cullen has done a wonderful job of researching this dramatic and shocking story, and I believe that she has managed to craft a highly plausible explanation of the events. Twain’s End was a highly engaging read that made me want to skip meals and sleep in order to continue reading to learn more of the story. Regardless to one’s prior knowledge of the writer, this is a wonderful novel as it introduces a topic that I don’t believe is as well known.

“The Determined Heart: The Tale of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein” Book Review

Author: Antoinette May

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

Publication Date: September 29, 2015

Type: Historical Fiction

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I have long been a fan of the Frankenstein story. When I was a small child I first introduced to the basic story idea through such films as Young Frankenstein and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Later I viewed a much more accurate portrayal of the story when I watched Kenneth Branagh’s film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but it was not until I was a freshman in high school that I finally read the story for myself. For me, Frankenstein is one of those few classic novels that held my interest from the opening sentences and appealed to the inner workings of my mind. To read of a brilliant doctor who takes it upon himself to play God and give life to that which once was dead, is both an intriguing and fascinating concept as well as a wonderful tale of caution and over stepping one’s place in the greater scheme of nature.

Over the years, I have found myself continuing to indulge in the story of Frankenstein by continuing to watch Young Frankenstein as well as to re-read the novel every so often. Thus it is with this true and profound love of the tale that I was excited to have received notification from NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing that I was to receive an advance e-galley of Antoinette May’s new book about the life of the woman behind the book. Prior to reading The Determined Heart: The Tale of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein, all that I knew about the author was that she first created the story as part of a challenge laid forth by Lord Byron on a dark and stormy night to the group of writers who were gathered. As I had hoped, May’s fictionalized account of the author provided me with the larger story that exists about one of the world’s most famous and prolific female writers of the period.

As with Mary Shelley’s novel, I found myself drawn in to May’s account of the writer from the first few sentences. The Determined Heart is a beautifully written tragic story with a heroine who continuously experiences loss and death from birth. Having lost her mother due to childhood, Mary goes on to live a coddled life with her father and half-sister Fanny who dote on her for the first four years of her life. At the age of four, Mary’s father marries a horrid woman who treats Mary terribly and at one convinces Mary’s father to send her away to friends, for the step-mother views her as a threat to the success of her own daughter, Claire. It isn’t until Mary is fourteen and returns that she meets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, then married to someone else, that Mary truly comes into her own as a woman and falls madly in love with the handsome young poet. With a whirlwind romance, resulting in Mary’s eventual running away from home with Percy and her stepsister; Mary begins the next phase of her life which will eventually lead to her writing of her most famous work.

Of the oft-debated topic of whether or not Percy entered into an affair with Mary’s stepsister Claire, May has chosen to come down on the side that he did carry on an affair with Claire, even going so far as to father a child by her. I found this an interesting side to take, but understand why it was chosen as it did help to add further drama within the story between Mary and Claire whose relationship had been strained from the beginning, as well as added drama between Mary and Percy who was a known philanderer. I couldn’t help but be amazed that Mary would remain with Percy, even going so far as to marry him following the suicide of his first wife, after all the instances of him cheating with random women and the continued cheating with Claire over the years. The fact that Mary was constantly able to find a way to forgive Percy for all of his misdeeds just reaffirmed both how young and naïve she was as well as how much she truly did love him.

If, like me, you’re a fan of Frankenstein and want to know more of the woman behind the gothic tale, even if it is a fictionalized account, I can’t help but highly recommend Antoinette May’s newest book about Mary Shelley.

Reflections on Banned Book Week

Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week Display

As with many avid readers, I have loved books and reading for as long as I can remember. I have many fond memories of my parents reading to me: before bed at night, when I was sick in bed, or when I just walked up to them with book in hand and asked them to read to me. Nightly readings to me turned into my parents teaching me how to read as part of my homework when I was in kindergarten. As I grew and my reading comprehension and vocabulary improved, I found myself wanting to tackle larger and harder tomes, many of which my sister, who is eight years my senior, was reading in her high school and college lit classes.

It wasn’t until I was in the fourth or fifth grade that I first learned about Banned Books Week, an event which has been around since it’s founding in 1982 by First Amendment and library activist, Judith King. My initial response to this event, which is held annually the last week of September, was one of absolute shock and horror. Shock and horror that individuals and groups alike would try to ban a person’s First Amendment right of Free Speech and subsequently the right to read and have access to the book of their choosing. This concept was so foreign to me because my parents had never said that I “couldn’t read a book because of x, y, or z reasons.” When I was in the sixth grade and wanted to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood all my parents said was to come to them with any questions and we would discuss the book when I was done.

This was something my parents would say to me on many occasions over the course of my informative years. There were even times when my parents or sister would mention or suggest a book that others have taken issue with. It was my dad, backed up by my mom, who suggested I read Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 following my confused tirade about the banning of books in the United States. Written in 1953, Farenheit 451 tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman whose job it is to set books on fire due to society having determined that books cause “discord and unhappiness.” Since its initial publication, Farenheit 451 has faced numerous challenges and bans, making it a true story of irony. Ray Bradbury was inspired to write the popular book about the harm of book banning after viewing footage of the Nazi book burnings as a child. Needless to say, as a strong opponent of those who would ban books from school and library shelves, Farenheit 451 became to me an instant favorite.

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Thus it was due to my initial introduction to Banned Books Week that I have made it a point to read at least one banned or challenged book during this week every year. This year, Banned Book Week runs from September 27th – October 3rd and the focus is on young adult books. Young Adult books as the theme was chosen because, as the Chair of the Banned Books Week Committee, Judith Platt, said: “Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book. These are the books that speak most immediately to young people, dealing with many of the difficult issues that arise in their own lives, or in the lives of their friends. These are the books that give young readers the ability to safely explore the sometimes scary real world. This Banned Books Week is a call to action, to remind everyone that young people need to be allowed the freedom to read widely, to read books that are relevant for them, and to be able to make their own reading choices.” http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/node/8805

As it is, six of the top ten most challenged or banned books in 2014 fall into the young adult category:

  1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  2. Persepolis by Marianne Satrapi
  3. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  5. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robin Harris
  6. Saga by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  9. A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard
  10. Drama by Reina Telgemeier

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10

With these titles in mind, it is my hope to read three of the six books (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Drama) not only to add to the number of books I read in a year but also to show my support of Banned Books Week. I continue to show my support of banned books by checking banned books out from my local library, by purchasing books that have been banned or challenged, by having discussions about these books with other readers and by attending Banned Books Week events at the library and book store.